Adult novelist Jennifer Donnelly skyrocketed onto the YA literary scene in 2003 with her award-winning historical fiction novel A Northern Light. She followed that up in 2010 with Revolution, a novel set in two time periods, one modern and the other during the French Revolution. Then she departed from historical fiction and wrote about merfolk in the Waterfire Saga. And now she returns to “one of [her] favorite periods of history” with her latest YA novel, These Shallow Graves, a murder mystery in which a young socialite in 1890 New York City secretly investigates her father’s murder with help from an intrepid reporter named Eddie. Two days before Donnelly embarked on a multi-continent book tour, PW spoke with her about, among other things, the ghosts that inspire her, worldwide equality for women, and her storytelling roots.
What drew you back to writing in a similar time period as A Northern Light?
Well it’s really funny, because I was trying to get away from all these ghosts. It was a ghost that was the inspiration for A Northern Light, the ghost of Grace Brown and the way I could hear her voice in her letters. And the ghost of a young boy, Louis-Charles, the son of Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI who was killed by the revolutionaries – that ghost spoke to me so strongly for my book Revolution. Being with these ghosts is fascinating but also dangerous, because you sit with them in a room day after day, week after week, year after year, and they tell you their stories, but they very much take pieces of your heart in return. Those books were hard, and I kind of wanted to do something different.
So I was working on this lovely little mermaid series with Disney and having a great time writing about mermaids and sea creatures and the ocean – all of which I love – and then as it always happens to me, this dead person shows up in my mind. And he’s very dead and he’s wearing clothes from a different time and he’s lying in a coffin. And I’m thinking to myself, oh no, I don’t want to know you, I don’t want to talk to you, you need to leave, but of course he didn’t leave, so I started asking him, “who are you?” and “why are you here?” I know this must sound completely insane, but this is kind of how it works, and little by little he started telling me his story and I was really intrigued and I listened.
And then more characters showed up in my head telling me his story and intertwining their own stories. One of these characters was Jo Montfort, the main character and heroine of These Shallow Graves, and as I got to know the dead man’s story, I got to know Jo’s story, and Eddie came and Oscar and Fay and the Tailor, but it was clear Jo was going to be the lead of this whole story, and I just spent more time with these characters. I got back into the 19th century, which I need no excuse to do. I open the books and get out the papers and the photos. I love researching. I love falling back into that world, and before I knew it, we were off and running. So much for my idea of getting away from ghosts! I’m starting to think I’m never, ever, ever going to get away from ghosts.
What in particular about the 19th century really appeals to you?
In New York’s Gilded Age, it’s the contrast and it’s the extremes. You have this immense wealth – I don’t even know if people today can conceive of the wealth of the Astors and the Vanderbilts and these sorts of people. I think the Breakers, which was a Vanderbilt mansion, cost something like seven million dollars to build at that time, which would be over 200 million of our dollars today. And that was only one of their houses – this man and his wife also had a palatial home in New York as well as other places. Contrast that kind of wealth with tenement life, with places like Hester Street or the Lower East Side, where a girl Jo’s age might earn three dollars a day in a sweatshop or as a shopgirl. There was this precariousness of life only miles away from where the robber barons lived. There were people who could get thrown out of their homes, who might not have enough to eat, or if the husband died the family was ruined. So that extreme contrast fascinates me, and I wonder, where is the middle ground? You had this oppressive Victorian morality, and yet at that time in the 1890s you have 30,000 prostitutes working in the city of New York every single day and many of them are girls – 14, 15 years old – not women, so it’s this amazing city of contrasts, shadow and sunlight, and that in between really fascinates me. It’s absolutely one of my favorite periods of history.
What sort of research did you do for this book?
I did a lot of reading: historical surveys and secondary sources – there’s a fantastic book called Island of Vice by Richard Zacks – and I like to attack primary sources, too, so I read etiquette manuals that were published at the time and diaries. I read Edith Wharton’s biography and autobiography, and I went back and read her stories to find out what was the voice, how did people speak to one another, what were they wearing, what were their concerns. I walked the streets of New York, because if you kind of squint your eyes, some of the facades go right back to what they were at the turn of the century. You can sort of see things turn sepia and you can kind of see today’s people becoming yesterday’s people. So it’s a mix of these broad historical surveys, a lot of primary sources, and going to museums, looking at jewelry, looking at dresses, looking at silver. Kind of trying to just suck it all in as much as I can.
Jo Montfort brings to mind another headstrong Josephine: Jo March from Little Women. And Nellie Bly was certainly an important figure in your book. Was Jo’s character inspired at all by particular people, real or fictional, that you’ve read about?
The way that most of my characters appear, they come out of the mist of imagination and then they make me work very, very hard to uncover their stories and to get to know them and to constantly dig deeper. So they are fully formed and I have to find out who they are. But I also read about different women of the time like Edith Wharton, who was from a very wealthy and privileged family – old Knickerbocker New York society – and she was this brilliant, gifted woman from an early age, but was brought up by these parents and in this group that didn’t want anything to do with artists and writers and even thought Edith was a bit odd and strange and too much given to books. You see these pictures of her as a young woman, sort of uncomfortable in her own skin, uncomfortable in these outfits, and then you see her when she’s Mrs. Wharton, this writer, and how she’s come into her own. If you follow her story, you know her unhappiness about marrying Teddy Wharton. She knew nothing about what was going to be expected on her wedding night, and she tried to ask her mother, but her mother sort of snapped at her and said, “Well, haven’t you seen the statues in the museums?” I mean it’s this heartaching ignorance. And then she and Teddy were so mismatched and they were unhappy and he fell into depression and it was just one thing after another. But finally she wrote more, and not just on houses and decorations, but novels. Her work became known, and she became the Edith Wharton that we know, and that transformation and seeing her become this woman in full was so fascinating to me, was such a happy end to her story.
There was another woman, a young heiress at the time, she was the daughter of William K. Vanderbilt and Alva Vanderbilt, and her name was Consuelo. Her mother was very socially ambitious, always competing with the leader of society at the time, who was Caroline Astor, and basically forced this beautiful young woman to become this fine, finished marriageable product. Consuelo had her own spirit, a sense of humor, and she was so smart, but she was very browbeaten by her mother who engineered this marriage between Consuelo and the Duke of Marlborough, a major English peer who needed the money for his huge estate, Blenheim Palace. Her mother wanted the prestige, so she forced this marriage and again Consuelo was incredibly unhappy in her marriage but produced heirs, and later procured a divorce and came into her own.
There was another story from that time about a girl who was walking the streets looking for a relative’s house, but because she was a dark, young woman, alone on the streets at night, an officer approached her, convinced she could be nothing but a prostitute. Only an immoral woman would walk the streets of New York alone at night, and so he arrested her. She went to trial, she had to prove that she was of good character, she was subjected to a physical examination, people had to testify. This is just so amazing to me, a woman of 2015, to go back and look at our foremothers and see what they had to contend with. Those people informed the character of Jo and they very much set her in her time and in her world. But Jo was Jo to me, and like all my characters she comes and I have to get to know who she is and hopefully get that soul on paper for my readers.
Even with her high social status, Jo lacks many freedoms. What was the most surprising thing you learned about women during the late 1800s while researching this book?
That’s a tough one. There was so much I knew already. The fact that women couldn’t vote. The fact that if you were married and it came to a divorce, which was still largely unheard of at that time, your husband got custody of the children. The way that so many women, who we understand today as having hormonal problems with things like postpartum depression or menopause, were labeled insane and became relegated to insane asylums. I knew that from when I did A Northern Light, but I guess just having it in front of my eyes again and being reacquainted with it, it kind of makes you sigh. It’s such a feeling of dread in your stomach.
Do you see any of the inequalities you discuss in your book reflected in women’s experiences today?
That’s interesting, because when I was researching A Northern Light – which is such a hard story based on a true murder that occurred in the Adirondacks in 1906 of a young, unmarried woman drowned in a lake by the father of her unborn child – I thought, it’s so different today: women have options, women have choices, women have freedom, and you don’t have to get married, and you can raise a child on your own, and you can terminate your pregnancy if that’s what you want to do. So the story of Grace weighed very heavily on me and made me so sad, and then this awful murder occurred, the Scott Peterson/Laci Peterson case, where he had a mistress and his wife and unborn baby became inconvenient, so he killed them. And I thought, oh my gosh, things have changed and yet they haven’t changed. And you hear these echoes from the past constantly reverberating.
I feel today we in the West have so many rights: we can vote and we have access to education, like our foremothers couldn’t dream of. There are certainly still challenges and wage discrepancies in the workplace, but we’ve made huge gains. I think the major problem is of course not in the West but in countries like Afghanistan where girls can’t get to a school, or in countries like Pakistan where if they can get to a school there’s a risk that they’ll maybe have acid thrown in their faces. I think we’ve come such a long way in the West and we’ve taken advantage of all these opportunities afforded us, but I feel like these advantages and opportunities have to be extended worldwide, absolutely, and all girls have to have access to education, sex education, health care, and the ability to work.
Jo seems drawn to Eddie because he’s so different from the other men she knows. What did you like most about writing Eddie?
I love his cheekiness. I love his independence. He’s very, very handsome, too. I love his humor. I love his ambition. He’s out to get a story, and he’s out to make his name, and he makes that completely plain, and yet he is such a good-hearted person, and he cares so deeply for her. He’s not a cad at all. I just love his spirit and his good heart but along with that, the cheekiness.
What’s your process for making sure you’re connecting all the dots in your mystery?
It’s just draft after draft after draft after draft. I don’t know the entire story when I start out. I outline and I try very hard to map it out. My outlines are very long and detailed, but the characters take over and it’s tough to enforce my vision and impose my will on them because they’re going to do what they’re going to do. So you get through that torturous, awful, hair-pulling first draft and then you look at the mistakes, and you look at what’s wrong, and you go back. It’s not two or three drafts. With me, it’s probably 10 drafts until the thing is good or at least works and hangs together, but then there’s still work to do. I’m sure there are parts of this book that have been written, no exaggeration, 50 times.
So to answer your question, there’s not this sort of precise, thought out, well-detailed machine at work here, it’s just this big mess and I keep kind of throwing myself at it over and over and over until there’s this feeling that, okay, it clicks, there’s something here, it works, the pieces dovetail. It’s just kind of this ahh feeling of relief and energy at the same time, that yes, I finally got it. But it’s oh so much struggle and heartbreak and why did I become a writer? All these sorts of questions go through your head. Because a mystery’s tough; to get those pieces to work in a compelling, satisfying way is tough. And this is my first real mystery, so I’m still very much learning. My other books have had the elements of mystery in them, but this is the first real mystery. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get to it. I think I’m somewhat intimidated by the genre and the people who write it. I see mystery writers as just ever so clever and smart, and I feel like who am I to join the ranks?, but it doesn’t stop me, I go after it anyway, and we’ll see how it’s received.
The book’s open ending feels almost more like a beginning. What do you see in Jo and Eddie’s future? And are there plans for continuing the story?
I’m definitely thinking about it. Those characters are talking to me all the time. You would expect this intense relationship with your main characters, Jo and Eddie, but Oscar, I miss Oscar so much. I’m always wondering what he’s doing and are he and Sarah Stein getting together and who is he cutting open now and how are his forensic studies going and what exactly is he up to. I just adore him. I mean, nothing grosses this guy out! So I definitely want to continue. We’ll have to see if readers like it. If they do, perhaps I will.
I agree with you completely – it’s a beginning. Jo’s come through this horrific, and at the same time wonderful, part of her life. She’s gained freedom. Where does she go next? Can she and Eddie make a go of it, or is he still too angry with her? She’s in a newsroom, a rough and tumble newsroom that would have been hard for anybody, never mind a young woman at that time. She’s got huge challenges and obstacles ahead of her. What is the workplace like for her? It’s competitive, and she’s also going to come up against sexism and prejudice against women in the workplace, so it’s all there, and I’m very much thinking about diving back in.
Three of your young adult novels have been historical stories (These Shallow Graves, Revolution, and A Northern Light). What is it about that genre – historical rather than contemporary – that appeals to you?
Well, I’m the daughter of a German mother who was a wonderful storyteller and who was a young child in Germany during World War II. When I was little, my mother was my storyteller and she really saw no need to borrow from amateurs like Walt Disney or Mother Goose. She had her own stories, and she found them more worthwhile and more edifying than anything Mickey Mouse and his friends had to offer. So at night when I was going to bed, I wasn’t getting stories like Cinderella and Snow White and all that stuff. I was getting this firsthand, personal account of life in Hitler’s Germany, and my mom might tell me what it felt like to be eight years old and running for her life from her house to the air raid shelters. And then what it felt like to come out of that air raid shelter hours later and find her house burned to the ground. She might tell me what it was like for her friend, who was the neighborhood snot-nose, who joined the Hitler Youth. Whenever he got in trouble, he would run and put his uniform on because when he was wearing it he was the property of the state and not even his parents could lay a hand on him. Or she might tell me about another friend who had cerebral palsy and how his mom would hide him in the closet every time the Nazi health inspectors came to town. So this was my very strange childhood and some people might say that maybe this was a bit too much for a child, and some of these stories were definitely harrowing, but I wasn’t horrified, and I wasn’t repulsed, I was just sort of galvanized. I would sit up and say, “What did you do?” “What happened next?” “How did you deal with this, Mom?”
And I think it was this that made me love both history and stories all at the same time. And it made me really see history as not only about generals and treaties and battles and wars. It’s about us, everyday people, and how these huge forces work on us and shape us and sometimes doom us and sometimes save us. So I was bitten early by the history bug and I know this is going to be something I follow and a genre I write in the rest of my life.
Your Waterfire Saga about merfolk is very different from your historical writings. What drew you to work on such a different project?
Well that came about because of those ghosts and thinking I don’t want to deal with you anymore and what am I going to do next? I’m going to do something totally different next. I was kicking some ideas around but nothing definite, and I went to go see the Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty, at the Met four years ago. It was absolutely amazing. It was so beautifully presented in these little, dark jewel box rooms. It was very eerie and the lighting was low and you could hear soundtracks of wolves howling and the wind howling. You’d move through these dark rooms and it was like moving through a really grim fairy tale. His work is very dark and a little eerie, and I got to the end of this exhibition where the last room contained a collection that had been inspired by the sea, and on the ceiling was this giant video screen and there’s this video playing of this young woman slowly sinking through the water in this amazing dress and you don’t know if she’s swimming or if she’s drowning or what’s going on.
So I came out of there in a daze, it was that emotional. The clothes in the exhibit were made of stuff like leather and cloth, but he incorporated bird skulls and animal horns and claws and emotion. I really felt emotion while I was there, and I felt him, I felt the ghost of McQueen, who had killed himself the year prior at age 40. I went home – I live about an hour and a half north of the city – and literally the second I got through the door my husband said, “Jennifer, you’ve got to call Steve. He wants you to call him right away and he says it’s important.” And Steve is Steve Malk, my agent, so I called him, and this is absolutely true, I’m not making this up, he said, “Jennifer, Disney just called me. They want to talk to you about a new project they’re working on. It involves mermaids and the sea.”
So I felt like once again there are the ghosts. That was McQueen, he handed me this gift, and I was off and running. I talked to the folks at Disney and they had a basic good vs. evil story arc sketched out, fixed main characters, and some of the universe and realm where these mermaid girls lived, but they allowed me to bring a lot to the story and I did. And because it’s me, I also brought a ton of history and mythology and backstory to the whole mermaid myth, because I have to find a way to incorporate history into everything I do. It’s been wonderful, I’ve loved it. I just finished the fourth book and we’re doing revisions on it. So it was a change of pace, and I’ll probably do more of that as well.
What are you working on next?
I’m just starting a new proposal that my agent and I are talking about but it’s top secret and I can’t give anything away on that yet. I am also about to embark on a five-week book tour in the United Kingdom and here at home for both Dark Tide, the third Disney book, and for These Shallow Graves. So that’s kind of all-absorbing at the moment. I’m looking forward to it. I like to get out and about. It’s been years of me sitting in my little corner upstairs in my office with all my imaginary friends, so I’m looking forward to getting out and seeing and talking to actual people. But I’m looking forward to writing again, too, because that’s what I live for.
You’ve concluded your Tea Rose Saga for adults. Do you have any plans for a new adult novel or series? How do you balance writing for both groups?
I’ve done it for years. Those characters still talk to me and plans bubble up, but it has been so all-consuming the last few years writing both the mermaids and These Shallow Graves concurrently. The new project that I’m thinking of now doesn’t involve the Tea Rose characters, but I hope to get back to them in the future. Part of it is fearfulness. Joe and Fiona were teenagers when they started out and now they’re older. I think they’re in their 50s or 60s when The Wild Rose ends, and if I keep going they’ll die. People didn’t live that long in the Victorian era, some did but most didn’t, and I can’t bear that. So yeah, part of it is fear holding me back as well as time constraints. And there’s a new generation of everyone’s children, and they’re growing up, but Fiona and Joe will literally have to live to be 150 just like the dowager countess in Downton Abbey. She’s got to be 150 years old by now, so they will just have to sustain like she has, because I can’t bear for them to die.
And what are you reading in your spare time?
Well with getting all the writing done, I’m now like the starved person who just has to grab books. I just finished Winger by Andrew Smith and I loved it. Oh my gosh, what a fantastic writer he is and the character’s voice was so strong that I felt like I was a 14-year-old boy for the last week. And now I just picked up Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, and I’m only a chapter or two in but again, such a strong voice, it comes right off the page and I’m hooked. I’m not one of those people who starts a book and then sort of puritanically makes herself finish it. If I don’t like a book by a page or two, I shut it and I’m on to the next one. And with these two books the voice is so there, so clear and wonderful, that I’m hooked and I love them both. The book before Winger was an adult novel, Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. People ask me all the time, “What do you like to read?” and it’s not a genre or a type. It’s always the voice. I’ll read anything: historical, horror, contemporary, dystopian. Anything if that voice is there. It’s like a crush or something, when you open a book and you read that first page and it speaks so deeply to you and you sit up straighter and the game’s afoot and you’re off. I just love that feeling, and it doesn’t matter what that book is.
These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. Delacorte, $19.99 Oct. 27 ISBN 978-0-385-73765-4